Performing Objectives: Automata, Puppets, Mechanical Theatres as Spectacular Precursors to Postmodern Cyberculture

Drama and Theatre Arts, School of English, Drama and American & Canadian Studies

College of Arts and Law


Code 21549

Level of study Third/Final year

Credit value 20

Semester 1 and 2

Module description

Automata and puppets continue to carry the myth of the art object so 'real' that it comes to life. Consider the sculptor Pygmalion who so adored his sculpture that the goddess Venus brought the statue to life (or Pinnochio and Frankenstein). This course will explore the seemingly conventional dramatic theory of mimesis or 'the real' through the unconventional medium of performing objects. These spectacular objects, particularly when they are mechanical, are directly linked to the advent of cyberspace. Cyberspace has revolutionised the world in our lifetimes. Our relationship to technology extends well beyond mere access to information: we live intimately with our computers, ipods, and mobile phones. This relationship is only further complicated by the spectacular entertainment world brought to us recorded or by live feed through machinery so complex that it is transmitted by satellite, fiber optics, and broad band width almost at the speed of light. In a week one person in Britain sees more entertainment than the average nineteenth century person would have seen in their entire lives. We can also make our own infotainment on you tube, blogs, or by podcasting. But how did we get this appetite for machine-based spectacle? This course will argue that cyberculture didn't arrive on the scene fully formed. Instead, the appetite for mechanical spectacle has numerous theatrical precursors, and extends back to the classical world, as we will see in the automata and mechanical theatres of Hero of Alexandria. Automata and puppets are the theatrical precursors to our digital world; they bear the evidentiary traces of the history of mechanized spectacle. We will examine automata, puppets, and robots as performing objects who are both constructors of and constructed by intellectual history in key media studies and history of science essays. Dramatic texts that we will explore include Büchner's Leonce and Lena, Diderot's Pardox of Acting, Craig's `The Actor and the Ubermarionette', Capek's R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots, and Alan Ayckbourne's Henceforwards.